Afghan ‘Valley of Death’ is sure-fire hit with media

December 10th, 2008 - 11:08 am ICT by IANS  

Korengal Valley (Afghanistan), Dec 10 (DPA) Minutes after the US Army Humvee leaves its mountain base, 7.62-mm bullets tear into the hood and turret until one finally hits driver Alex Goduti’s windshield panel dead centre.The reinforced glass withstands the impact, but the next round or two at most will shatter it; so he slams the vehicle in reverse and sends it lurching back up the track.

“I’m so lucky,” the startled 20-year-old tells his buddies, staring at the cobweb of cracks on the pane before his face, while a reporter filming from the back seat wonders at the speedy materialisation of his story.

But this is par for the course in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, where US and Afghan government troops battle with local tribesmen, Taliban and foreign fighters with such dependable regularity that the place emerged as a kind of “War Story Central”, drawing reporter after photographer after TV crew.

“The Korengal Valley became a media magnet when word got out that journalists who went there were virtually guaranteed to experience combat,” said Vanity Fair magazine contributor Sebastian Junger, a repeat visitor and author of one of the most compelling accounts of the fight in this corner of eastern Afghanistan.

“For a while almost one-fifth of the combat in the entire country was occurring in the Korengal,” he noted.

Located in Kunar province on the border with Pakistan, the Valley of Death, as it’s known to the troops, provides a vivid backdrop to this bitter struggle.

Cedar-clad mountains rise above the Korengal River as it winds past quaint clusters of stone houses and smallholdings dotting the 10-km-long valley, which through its isolation and ancient customs seems caught in another era.

But add the sudden thunderous exchanges of small arms and rocket fire between the hill crests, strafing runs by Apache helicopters, artillery and mortar barrages, and you have quintessential War on Terror on tap for journalists who come embedded with the military.

“In the Korengal, you photograph US troops doing what they were trained to do, and that’s fight, fight and then tomorrow, fight again,” Getty Images photographer John Moore said after a recent stay.

So great is the valley’s pull that more than half the applications received by the US military for media visits to eastern Afghanistan request the Korengal.

However, it’s a risky assignment as journalists are as exposed to harm as the platoons they accompany in these treacherous surrounds.

“I have found in the Korengal an area of spectacular, albeit deceptive beauty, where a seemingly tranquil paradise can turn into your worst nightmare in a heartbeat,” said combat photographer Keith Lepor, who in September took a bullet in the chest during a mission.

His life was saved by the ceramic plate in his body armour.

“I was almost killed twice, both times when I least expected it,” Junger recalled of his own visits to the valley.

While grateful that their efforts are not ignored, the troops regard the media pilgrimage to one of the most perilous spots in Afghanistan with detached amusement.

“It’s almost become a rite of passage for journalists, so they can say ‘I’ve been to the Korengal,’” said Lieutenant Cliff Pederson of Viper Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, which lost six men killed in action and 19 wounded since deploying here in July.

Some troops feel that coverage tends toward sensation and negativity, or altogether misses the broader context of efforts to defeat the insurgents and rebuild the country.

“Sometimes it gives the impression that the whole of Afghanistan is falling apart and that’s definitely not true,” said Captain Clinton Cummings, who leads a team of US Marine Corps trainers working in the area with Afghan government troops.

Soldiers also say they have to allay fears among their loved ones every time a new report comes out.

A series of pieces in October by US broadcast network NBC came under criticism for its handling of a friendly-fire incident in which a US mortar shell hit a house occupied by troops, killing one US soldier and injuring six.

The immediate aftermath of the blast was not shown, but the pained cries of the survivors were aired.

“I don’t think people back home needed to hear all of us scream right after we got hit, my mum didn’t need to hear that, nor did the wives and kids of the people here,” said Specialist Thomas Richardson, 22.

To the folks at home, Korengal looks like a picturesque hell. By most measures it probably is. But Viper Company’s commander, Captain James Howell, notes that while hostilities are often intense, media can get carried away with the pursuit of high drama.

“We’re not fighting for our lives every minute of the day,” Howell said. “It’s a good story - but it’s a story.”

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